In a modern fantasy suburbia, Ian Lightfoot (voiced by Tom Holland) and older brother Barley (Chris Pratt) have been gifted with a magic staff from their long-departed father. Barley was only a young child when their father died, and Ian never knew him, and now both are granted an opportunity via magic to bring their dear old man back for one more day. The magic spell is interrupted and, as a result, only one half of their father is brought back to life, the lower half, chiefly his legs. The boys must travel on an epic quest in order to bring the rest of their father back to life before all of him disappears again.
Onward is the first time Pixar has ventured into a fantasy realm and the mixture of the modern with the high-fantasy setting allows for some fun juxtaposition. The teenage worries about fitting in, testing your boundaries, and finding out your sense of self can be very relatable, even in a world of trolls and elves. I enjoyed the combative and compassionate brotherly dynamic between Ian and Barley, and Holland (Spider-Man: Far From Home) and Pratt (Avengers: Endgame) are terrific together and really do feel like feuding family members. Their high energy performances translate well to animation. The Pixar creative team does enough to provide little distinguishing character touches for both, enough to provide some extra shading so they don’t quite feel like cartoon versions of their more famous Marvel counterparts. Ian is all awkward and lacking in confidence whereas Barley is overloaded with self-confidence and an unshakable sense of arrested development. I enjoyed the small number of memories relating to their father that Barley holds onto, and I enjoyed how Ian listens to a brief, ordinary test recording of his father on a cassette tape and creates a dialogue between father and son. It’s such a sweet moment that also demonstrates Ian’s ache. I enjoyed how the screenplay connects the external to the internal, namely the obstacles on this quest to the personal trials for Ian and Barley. It allows more meaningful payoffs and more rewarding character growth for our duo. I enjoyed spending time with both boys and was glad their quest was more about them than magical ephemera.
Amazingly, what works best in this movie is its emotional core, which sounds slightly bizarre considering it’s a road trip with a pair of legs. As Onward progresses and settles down with its better honed second half, it puts more emphasis on the relationship between the brothers, their hopes and worries for one another, their sacrifices and shames, and ultimately it becomes a movie about two boys trying to find closure with the memory of their dearly departed dad. The genuine emotion of the brothers is enough to pave over most of the undeveloped elements of the world and storytelling (more on that below). I would have thought, going in, that Onward would present a so-so story with an intriguing world of possibility. I’m surprised that my experience was the exact opposite. The story and central relationships are what kept me going, and it’s what ultimately earned some teary eyed responses from me late in the movie. The topic of seeking closure is a personal one for me and something I value highly, so it was very easy for me to plug my own yearning and vulnerability into these characters. They’re going through all this dangerous trouble not just to see their departed father one last time but also to say goodbye, and that got me big time. It gave the entire movie a new weight that I wasn’t expecting. Who wouldn’t want another chance to tell a loved one how much they miss and appreciate them?
The whole concept of being stuck with a loved one’s lower torso allowed me many moments of contemplation. First, I wondered what their father must be going through to only experience the world through his legs. It felt limited. How do you communicate to others? The film finds its ways. How do you express emotions simply from a pair of disembodied legs? The film finds its ways. As Ian and Barley drag him along on a zipline leash, I kept thinking about the dad. What is he thinking in this moment? Is he waiting for some kind of comforting confirmation from his sons to tell him where he is and what is happening? I kept thinking how confused he must be. To the filmmakers’ credit, they don’t ever emphasize the potential hell of this half-existence. He’s presented often as a figure of comic relief, especially as his upper torso pile of clothes sloshes around and tumbles off. In a way, the pair of legs reminded me of the visual metaphor of the floating house in 2009’s Up, the manifestation of the protagonist’s heavy grief. They’re tethered to this half-formed memory of their father, unable to fully interact with him and let him go. I was worried that Onward was going to be the Pixar equivalent of Weekend at Bernie’s and it is not.
There are some issues with the movie, nothing major, but enough to make it feel under developed, especially in comparison to the Pixar movies of past. The imagination is there, however, the world-building of this fantasy world is decidedly lacking. There are some cute asides like unicorns as the equivalent of trash-eating raccoons, but as a whole the fantasy world feels underdeveloped to its full potential. There’s a significant story point where the current world has forgotten its magic roots thanks to the ease of technology and its inoculating effects, which seems like a pretty straightforward message for our own lazy world. Again, though, Onward doesn’t dig deeper into this theme or what it could mean for the larger mythology of its own world and its history and the rules governing its magical creatures. I started to wonder whether Pixar could just have set this story anywhere.
Likewise, the supporting characters don’t amount to much and feel like leftovers from earlier drafts where they had richer involvement. The ongoing subplot with their mother (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) teaming up with the fabled beast-turned small business owner Manticore (Octavia Spencer) offered little other than occasional exposition. The Manticore is supposed to best represent how the new world has traded its culture and history for comforts and safety, but it’s not clearly realized and integrated. My pal Ben Bailey reflected that the Manticore seemed like a one-scene character that the filmmakers didn’t want to drop, and so she was stretched through the rest of the film to diminished returns. The last act has a sudden and arbitrary monster to defeat that feels like the kind of thing expected in these sorts of movies, which is a rarity for Pixar and thus a slight disappointment.
Lastly, much of the humor just doesn’t work. The jokes can be stale, safe, or one-note, like a team of very tiny pixie bikers. It’s often silly without exactly being clever. There’s more fleeting visual humor with the incongruous nature of fantasy in a modern setting. There’s less slapstick than you would think considering one of the main characters lacks a torso. I chuckled a few times but, much like the fantasy setting, felt the humor was kept at an superficial level of thought.
Onward isn’t top-tier Pixar but it’s a solid mid-tier entry, an enjoyable adventure with a resonant emotional core that makes me forgive many of the film’s other aspects that don’t quite work. The brothers are the best part, their interactions are the most interesting, and their heartfelt journey and hopeful desire for closure is what ultimately left me emotionally satisfied. The jokes and world and supporting characters don’t feel as developed, but it hits with its core relationship and its emotional center, so Onward works where it counts the most with its storytelling. Mid-tier Pixar is much like mid-tier pizza — still satisfying and better than a lot of other options.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Honey Boy may be one of the most fascinating movies before you even watch a single second. It’s begging for an intensely ambitious psychological analysis as Shia LaBeouf lays bare his soul in an act of art as therapeutic device. He wrote the screenplay of a very autobiographical tale of a young child actor (nick-named “Honey Boy” by his father) hitting new levels of fame and his abrasive, abusive, and very controlling father, an alcoholic entertainer that relishes his son’s growing success and also resents his accomplishments. That alone would have made Honey Boy an interesting film experience, but LaBeouf goes the extra mile, as he does, and he literally plays the father character, putting him in the position of bringing to life the hurtful authority figure and thinking from his skewed perspective. It makes every moment LaBeouf is onscreen deeply fascinating and deserving of a deep dive to unpack the layers of personal meaning for the man. LaBeouf is also startling and terrific as the self-destructive and self-determined father, a man who finds slights in the slightest but can also be very encouraging of his son’s dreams. Seriously, every moment he is onscreen is suffused with layers of artistic meaning for what it represents in the story, its relationship to LaBeouf the person, and what LaBeouf the son is discovering while playing his father. It becomes a cathartic exercise that also could prove to be literal empathy. The problem with Honey Boy is that it feels more like that dramatic exercise than an actual story; the secondary storyline with the adult protagonist, played by Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the Sea), hardly provides much significance. He’s going through rehab and dealing with his unresolved feelings and addictions, but it’s more a framing device than a story itself or a worthwhile contrast to provide helpful details. The movie would just have been fine without it. However, there isn’t really a development of a plot as there is a general repetition of the relationship, namely the complicated and fractious father/son relationship. We spend a lot of time at this motel. We spend a lot of time with father speaking to son. I think a clear majority of the lines are spoken by LaBeouf. It’s always fascinating, with the exception of a misfire of a young romance that seems to float by more on yearning, but after a while I started to notice it felt like we were getting more of the same. We weren’t generating new insights into the characters and how they might change. Is this movie an act of forgiving his father or understanding him? I don’t know, but I’d happily debate Honey Boy with a pal over a beer for the next hour. It’s an inherently intriguing movie loaded with subtext that has its own subtext, a touch of the surreal from documentary filmmaker Alma Har’el, and powerful acting from LaBeouf. It can also feel like more of the same after the first hour. It’s a movie you need to see but it’s ultimately more LaBeouf opening up his intensive therapy role-play than it is a fully-formed movie. James Franco must watch this movie and weep.
Nate’s Grade: B
As I was watching the sweetly good-natured but somewhat superficial 2018 documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, I was left wondering if there could be a big screen story on minister-turned-children’s TV host Fred Rogers, a.k.a. “Mr. Rogers.” Was there enough material to open up this kind, affirming, gentle man into a three-dimensional character worthy of a deep dive? I’m still unsure after watching A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood with Tom Hanks as Rogers. The filmmakers made the conscious decision to construct a fictional narrative of family strife between a father (Chris Cooper) and his son, Lloyd (Matthew Rhys), a magazine writer. Fred Rogers begins as an assignment for Lloyd and becomes the change agent, pushing Lloyd, in the gentlest and most empathetic manner, to reflect on his anger over his father’s abandonment and to work through his feelings and potentially forgive the old man. Like the PBS star, the movie is sweet and optimistic and gentle and just a little bit boring. The film follows a pretty strict formula of catharsis, and while it works it doesn’t make A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood feel more than a TV-movie plot attached to a malnourished Fred Rogers biopic. I understand the storytelling difficulties of trying to make a soft-spoken man who isn’t given to long-winded speeches a starring role, so it makes sense that his presence would be a catalyst for a family in crisis, basically serving as therapist. Hanks is fitting and affecting, and once again I feel like there are glimmers of a more complex man underneath the persona we’ll never be treated to in any big screen examination, like about his struggles raising his own children, his crisis of relevancy late in life. The majority of the movie is a father/son story that is well acted and pretty much fine, and “pretty much fine” is a perfect description of the film as a whole. It’s nothing you’ll regret seeing and it will generally be uplifting and sincere, but it’s basically a 108-minute greeting card.
Nate’s Grade: B
I knew early on when I was watching the advertisement for writer/director James Grey’s Ad Astra (Latin for “to the stars”) that this was going to be more a quiet, slower, contemplative movie than the ads were making it seem. Hey, I like quiet, slower, contemplative movies, but I like the ones where they give me an entry point, a reason to care, and a story with characters that make me feel compelled to watch what happens next. Ad Astra does not quite rise to that level.
Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is an astronaut in a near future with a special mission: to find his father (Tommy Lee Jones). The father left Earth decades ago to search for intelligent life and develop an alternative energy source. His discovery has unleashed a series of destabilizing power surges across Earth. Roy is ordered to travel to the outer reaches of Neptune and discover what has happened to his father and his crew who have stopped communicating. If necessary, he is to use all options to correct the problem, including taking his dear deadbeat dad’s life.
Ad Astra is probably the most realistic portrayal of what space travel cold be like in the near future. It’s a grounded approach that feels very detail-oriented without necessarily losing the audience in the schematic output of all those details. It reminded me a bit of a companion piece with last year’s First Man, where the audience saw all the ingenuity, as well as makeshift dangers, of early space flight. The interiors of these space ships and bases are far closer to resembling the plain days of early NASA than anything fancy and gleaming when it comes to futuristic science fiction. When Roy is walking around a giant tower reaching high into the atmosphere, it feels like you are there with him experiencing the dizzying heights, locked into his human-sized perspective of something so massive and intimidating, and it’s merely man-made. Wait until we get to the heavenly bodies. It’s an aesthetic choice that lends the film an authenticity as well as the amazing solar visuals from cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (Interstellar). The scale of space is really felt as Roy keeps venturing further and further away from home, into the cold darkness of the unknown, towards that missing father and sense of resolution. The visuals and stately special effects are beautiful and given an additional level of ethereal glory from a score by Max Richter (The Leftovers). It’s a lovely movie to sit back and watch, and thanks to its episodic structure, it delivers something new every twenty minutes or less. The movie can feel more than a little tedious as it stretches out into the cosmos. There’s something to be said about a film that has the patience to take in the splendor of the universe, and there’s also something to be said about having a more significant story to pair with those awe-inspiring cosmic panoramas.
My issue with Ad Astra is that everything feels to be locked in at a very general level of substance. The story of a son voyaging to meet his absentee father and come to terms with that relationship is a fine starting point, except the movie doesn’t do much more. The idea of a main character living in his famous yet distant father’s shadows is a fine starting point, except the movie doesn’t do much more. The idea of exploring life in the universe is fine, except the movies doesn’t do so much with that either. It feels like you’re watching what must have amounted to twenty pages of script spread out over the course of two hours. If it’s going to be a character study, then I need more attention spent deepening Pitt’s character beyond the pretty rote daddy issues on display. If it’s going to be a contemplative exploration of man’s place in the universe, then I need more sides and angles of perspective throughout the movie. There are no real supporting characters in this movie outside of guest appearances (Hey, it’s Ruth Negga and Donald Sutherland). The father figure is kept more as looming idea or force of nature than human being. Roy’s wife (a barely there Liv Tyler) is more a recorded visual of regret to remind the audience of Roy’s loss and sacrifice, relating to his pursuit of his father. The entire film feels far too sketched in, archetypal, and generalized to noodle around with weighty ideas and concepts that it doesn’t seem fully committed to exploring in meaningful ways.
The problem with a narrative that’s episodic is that not every episode is as interesting. Each Pitt stop (oh, you bet I’m intending that pun) allows a slightly different tale to emerge, but then it’s over and done and we’re moving onward. With Apocalypse Now, those episodes came together to tell a larger mosaic about the madness of the Vietnam War and the physical and psychological toll it was taking. I was not getting that same kind of cohesion with Ad Astra. The most exciting episode involves a lunar chase and shootout. It’s cleverly executed and makes strong use of the limitations of space, in particular the lack of sound. One second your co-pilot is at the wheel and the next he has a soundless bullet hole through the head. It was an intriguing segment because of the unique realities of staging its genre car chase that open up something familiar into something new. Unfortunately, many of these episodic segments just incrementally push the story along, pairing Roy with a new group of people that we’ll shed in fifteen minutes or so. Don’t get attached to anybody because the only characters that really matter in the universe of Ad Astra are Roy and his father. Every other character is merely a representation of some aspect of their relationship. It makes the smaller episodes feel a bit mundane unless they have something fresh, like that lunar chase. Otherwise, it’s more people we’ll be soon getting rid of doing inconsequential tasks.
Removing the dominant father/son relationship, Ad Astra is a movie about the search for meaning in life. Roy’s father has exclusively put that meaning upon the discovery of intelligent life in the universe. If human beings are all there is, he questions what’s the point of going on? First off, Mr. McBride is only exploring one portion of space and to paraphrase Billy Bob Thornton in Armageddon, there’s a “big-ass” amount of space. If the man fails to detect any signs of intelligent life, that doesn’t mean it isn’t out there, it only means it hasn’t been found where one person was looking (the Missing Keys Dilemma). On a philosophical note, even if humanity was all there was in the great wide expanse of space, that doesn’t make our existence any less remarkable. If we happen to be the lone representatives of intelligent life, born from heat and rock and millions of years of trial and error getting it just right, then that’s incredible. There are so many variables going against the existence of life on our tiny bubble of air out in the vast vacuum of space, and just because we lucked in and others have yet does not take away from the appreciation and majesty of humanity’s prized situation. Do we put our meaning outside of ourselves or develop our sense of meaning from within? I cannot say whether Ad Astra is keeping this storyline so vague and generalized so that is can stand-in for spirituality, the idea of looking for proof of a higher intelligence, a God, and finding meaning in a grander design rather than the chaos and luck of chemistry and evolution. Or does Roy’s father represent God and Roy is man confronting an absentee creator? Under that interpretation, the ending might make a little more sense, but again I’m doing the movie’s work for it by projecting meaning.
It’s pretty much a one man show and Pitt (Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood) is asked to do a lot without showing much. His character is a reserved man by nature, though that doesn’t stop him from explaining his inner thoughts through intrusive voice over narration, an addition that feels tacked-on after some test screening to better acquaint an audience that was having difficulty staying on board. Pitt is an actor capable of tremendous subtleties through his movie star good looks, and he has moments here where his eyes are telling the story that the movie doesn’t seem interested or committed to tell. If you were going to spend two hours in space with one actor, you could do far worse than someone like Pitt.
Ad Astra is more art film than thriller, more father-son reclamation than sci-fi, and more a drifting homage to Apocalypse Now in Space than something that can stand on its own merits. The expansive cosmic visuals are luxurious on the big screen, the level of detail toward the realities of space travel are appreciated, and Pitt is a sturdy anchor for the project, but what does it all come to? Everything is kept at such a generalized level that the movie feels like it’s skirting the surface and ignoring larger depth. It has a surfeit of directions and choices it can make for greater depth, but we have to keep on trucking, like a ticking clock, entirely constructed to serve one purpose, barreling toward the father/son confrontation and resolution. Except I didn’t care about Roy’s dad because I didn’t feel the impact he had on his son, I didn’t feel the need for some form of closure, the driving force of the movie’s big little universe. And yet we drift onward, like the boat in Apocalypse Now, heading for our destination because we’re told to do so. Ad Astra is an acceptable matinee with some well applied technical craft and a bleak sense of realism but it’s ultimately too empty of an experience to warrant any return trips of value.
Nate’s Grade: C+
The young author sub-genre has become an awards season cottage industry. We’ve seen recent stories about J.M. Barrie, Jane Austin, P.L. Travers, Beatrix Potter, Ernest Hemingway, and a whole assortment of the Beats. Even in 2017 there have been stories about a young J.D. Salinger (Rebel in the Rye), the creator of Wonder Woman (Professor Marston and the Wonder Women), and soon Charles Dickens (The Man Who Invented Christmas). We seem to relish watching the formation of brilliance, or at least watching a recognizable creative voice find their flights of inspiration. Goodbye Christopher Robin is meant to be another in the tradition of young author movies served up on a platter for season-ending awards and recognition. Goodbye Christopher Robin is so serious, clumsy, and tacky in final execution that it enters awards bait self-parody.
Alan Milne (Domhnall Gleeson) is coming to terms with his PTSD after his experience sin WWI and trying to re-enter the literary and theatrical world of London. He finds inspiration through the imaginative play dates with his young son, Christopher Robin a.k.a. “Billy Moon,” and in time the formation of Winnie the Pooh’s world. The book is met with immediate success and Alan and his wife, Daphne (Margot Robbie), are all too ready to ride the wave of fame. Christopher is raised by his kindly nanny, Olive (Kelly Macdonald). Eventually, Christopher grows to resent his parents, the public’s assumption about himself, and the very name of Pooh itself, so much so that he volunteers to go to war as a means of just escaping the overbearing attention of the spotlight.
The opening act of this movie is the best part, and it’s all pre-Pooh. It also helps that it focuses more on Alan Milne rather than his son, who will take a far larger role later. Milne is already a slightly prickly character who doesn’t exactly fit in with the British upper class. He’s also trying to process his PTSD and return to some semblance of a normal life. He’s also struggling artistically, and this is where the film is at its most interesting because it has the most focus. We get to really delve into the triggers and emotional state of a character in a way that feels engaging. We spend time establishing a person, a trauma, and how it impacts his relationships. It’s not the most singularly compelling drama but it’s still more effective than what regrettably follows.
Where things start to go irreversibly downhill is the exact emergence of Pooh. While Milne is spending more time with the son he doesn’t fully know how to relate to, he’s also pumping his boy for ideas during their play for a children’s story. We get the expected but still lazy moments of all the little signifiers in their lives that connect with future characters. Then one Pooh gets published it becomes an international best seller and the movie just zooms through plot. It goes from releasing the book to everyone in the world loving it literally in a minute of screen time. The Milne family, and especially Christopher Robin, can’t go anywhere without being recognized and hounded by fans. This is also where the film makes a sharp turn and reveals Alan and Daphne Milne to be really terrible parents. As soon as success appears, they’re actively exploiting their child at every opportunity, including such stunts as a radio station also listening in to father wishing his son a happy birthday over the telephone. If there’s a chance they can sell more books, get extra publicity, or simply parlay their fame into something, they take it, and often Christopher Robin is left home alone with his nanny while mom and dad lap it up. Rarely have you seen childhood neglect made to appear so strangely whimsical.
Even this abrupt plot turn could have worked as an interesting and unexpected portrayal of a literary family that lost the “family” sensibility once fame and fortune arrived. Unfortunately, this is not really a movie about consequences being felt because we’ve got to speedily move onto the next plot point in order to fulfill the formula. After Olive has her big speech about how the Milnes have been mistreating Christopher Robin, it’s literally two scenes later where Alan comes to agree. Lot of internal turmoil there, huh. Christopher Robin’s life gets so bad he’s practically begging to go to war. Even his fate during the war is something the film doesn’t leave unanswered for long. Why dwell on the consequences of decades of bad parenting when we can still careen into a feel-good ending that will attempt to poorly wipe clean the slate? Everything is resolved so rapidly and without larger incident that rarely does the story have time to register. We’re never going to feel great insights into these characters if the film doesn’t give us time. Who cares about hardships and betrayals if they’re just going to be erased in the next scene or if some life lesson will be ham-fistedly learned, but not earned, in short succession?
This is not a subtle movie by any means. The second half of Goodbye Christopher Robin is all about how the boy’s life is awful and how much he dislikes the spotlight. The father comes up with the solution of sending Christopher Robin to a boys’ home way out in the country. As soon as dad leaves, the boys instantly start bullying and harassing Christopher Robin, literally throwing him down flights of stairs while chanting insults. Dear reader, the next part astounded me. It is during the shot of him being pushed down the stairs that the movie uses this sequence as a transition device. By the time Christopher Robin stumbles to the bottom of the stairs he is now a teenager. It’s as if he has been falling down the stairs for a hellish decade. Then there’s the moment where dad sees his son off to war at the train station. As he looks back, for a brief moment it’s not teenage Christopher Robin boarding that train but young child Christopher Robin. I laughed out loud at this moment. It’s too earnest and too clumsy not to.
The acting cannot save this movie. Gleeson (The Revenant) gets to be that kind of aloof where the actor pronounces words with great care. His acting style is a bit too removed and opaque to really feel much for his character, especially when he cedes the spotlight to his neglected and exploited son. Robbie (Suicide Squad) is just completely wasted. She might be the film’s biggest villain and her disapproving stares look like they should be accompanied by cartoon steam coming out of her ears. Macdonald (HBO’s Boardwalk Empire) fares the best mostly due to her genuinely appealing nature. It also doesn’t help matters when it appears that our young Christopher Robin, newcomer Will Tilston, was hired for his toothy grin and dimples. This is not an especially good child performance. It’s powerfully winsome but in an overly cloying manner. It was hard for me to work up much empathy for Christopher Robin because the performance kept left me cold.
Goodbye Christopher Robin is a feel-good movie that made me feel like checking my watch. It’s tonally off with its mixture of sentiment and indifference, zooms through important plot points rather than dwell on the impact of decisions, and looks for any opportunity to bludgeon an audience rather than deliver something genuine and subtle. If you’re a major fan of Winnie the Pooh perhaps you’ll get something out of it knowing its author was a terrible parent. This wasn’t a movie that made me feel authentic emotions. It felt too clumsy, too mechanical, and ultimately too miscalculated. The only awards this might be contending for at the end of the year are not the kind it’s going to want.
Nate’s Grade: C-
One way to stand out in a crowded marketplace is to differentiate your movie by making it weird and whimsical. Just being different can grab your attention, and Brigsby Bear and Dave Made a Maze are definitely different. Both of these indie films attracted attention for their unusual concepts and lo-fi designs, banking on a sense of nostalgia for a homemade style of art that’s a little rough around the edges. These might be two of the strangest films that will be released in 2017.
James (Saturday Night Live’s Kyle Mooney) is living underground with his parents, April (Jane Adams) and Ted (Mark Hamil). He does his homework, listens to his parents about never going outside, and anxiously waits every new episode of Brigsby Bear, a children’s fantasy TV show starring a Teddy Ruxbin-looking bear that teaches life lessons. Eventually we discover that April and Ted are not, in fact, James’ parents. They abducted him when he was a baby. The FBI raids their compound and returns James to his biological family, the Popes (Matt Walsh and Michaela Watkins as mom and dad, Ryan Simpkins as younger sis). James just wants to know when the next episode of Brigsby will come out. Unfortunately for James, Brigsby isn’t real. Ted produced the show on a nearby sound stage. He’d even occasionally hire other actors. James is the world’s most knowledgeable fan of a TV show no other person knows one iota about. He’s determined to give it a proper ending and recruits family, friends, and neighbors to make the ultimate Brigsby movie.
I was pleasantly surprised at how effectively Brigsby Bear was at being cheery and sincere. I was expecting, given the premise, an ironic riff on nerd culture or obsessive fandom, and Mooney and company instead decided to play things very seriously. They take a fantastic premise that seems begging for derisive commentary and choose to find a human story within the absurd. That’s much more commendable and harder to achieve. As I’m aging, I’m becoming more and more appreciative of sincerity over irony (part of this is also that our modern age is inundated with irony). I was reminded of last year’s Swiss Army Man, an alarmingly strange movie with Harry Potter’s farting corpse and went for sincerity without any whiff of detached irony. Brigsby Bear isn’t at the same level of artistic accomplishment and lasting power as Swiss Army Man, but it’s an unconventional and touching movie that earns its quirky-yet-feel-good emotions.
It’s easy to see where this story could have exclusively dwelt in psychological darkness. James was abducted as a child and raised in a strange environment that makes him emotionally stunted and grossly ill prepared for the real world outside his reclusive safe space. The movie could have understandably dealt with James’ crippling sense of loneliness, betrayal, and inability to assimilate since his sense of self were cultivated by a fake children’s TV show. He could have easily been the creepy oddball who makes people uncomfortable. Instead, they made him the goofy oddball who makes people smile. His childlike sense of wonder is in tact and frees him from self-doubt. James is remarkably cheery for having his world turned upside down, and the movie follows his lead. This movie could have been another perplexing Dogtooth and instead it’s more accurately reminiscent of those old Mickey Rooney “we’re putting on a show” pictures. I was waiting for a moment of artificial conflict, a darker plot turn late into the film where perhaps it’s revealed that Ted was a molester. There’s 700 episodes of Brigsby Bear so I figured a few of them would reveal disturbing clues about something even worse. The film never does take that darker turn and instead stays upbeat to the very end.
As he adjusts to his new home, the movie serves as both a delayed coming-of-age movie and a love letter to the power of creativity and how it can build community. With James transported into the outside world, much is made over his awkwardness with human interactions and his complete lack of guile. He gets his first kiss with a girl, and shortly after his first handjob, and wonders if that means they have to get married. It’s a sweetly naïve reflection. We watch the growing pains of James as he starts to make friends and become more confident in himself, which is a surefire way to win over an audience. James isn’t held up for ridicule. People want to be part of his project. He’s overcoming adversity and triumphing through the transformative power of art. There’s a joy in watching characters find themselves anew, and James serves as the catalyst. This person knows how to do special effects. This person used to act when they were in college. In his heartfelt attempt to provide closure to the Brigsby series, and possibly a chapter in his life, James’ project takes on a life of its own that brings people together. It shows how the community of art can be an empowering venture that can freely inspire the best in others.
The movie doesn’t become overly reliant upon nostalgia either. I figured it would be an ode to 80s television and culture but it really just uses that as backdrop. The world building of the show of Brigsby is bizarre and entertaining every time it’s included, especially when you comprehend the propaganda messages that Ted is sneaking in like, “Curiosity is an unnatural emotion.” The sense of wonder and whimsy doesn’t overwhelm the movie and its poignancy. Director Dave McCary (Saturday Night Live) makes the most of the retro pastiches while still serving the story. James could just have easily been obsessed with any show or ongoing work of art. The content of the show is unimportant. It’s about facilitating his growth into a person comfortable and confident with whom they are. By the end of the film, I was fighting back tears as the full assembly of characters watches the finished product of their labor. You watch them smile, laugh, take a sense of pride in their communal efforts, and they can see the world as James does. It’s a whole-heartedly pleasurable movie with surprising currents of emotional uplift.
With Dave Made a Maze, the titular Dave (a beardless Nick Thune) is lost in a maze that he built in the apartment he shares with his beleaguered girlfriend, Annie (Meera Rohit Kumbhani). This maze consists of a cluster of cardboard boxes taped together. In time, a group of their friends and even strangers have assembled to admire the maze. Dave warns them not to enter but they do so anyway, and once inside they realize that the maze is considerably bigger and byzantine, and everyone expectedly gets lost. Annie and a documentary crew travel (lead by James Urbaniak) deep into the maze to rescue Dave. They all must confront booby traps, a Minotaur, thirty-something existential ennui, and the unsettling realization that the maze is expanding all on its own.
The real star of Dave Made a Maze is the fantastical environment inside the maze. The resourcefulness, imagination, and implementation of such a bizarre vision on such a limited budget is incredible. Each new room offers a new opportunity for the surreal. The characters stumble from room to room in mixtures of awe and bemusement, and the audience will feel the exact same way. Production designers Trisha Gum and John Sunner, and Art Director Jeff White, come from a world of animation, and they’re meticulous attention to detail pays off to an astonishing degree. In a just world, they would be nominated for an Oscar. There’s a DIY inventiveness that carries an irresistible charm with it, re-purposing everyday items to create a unique and whimsical world. Even when people are being gored to death and dismembered it adheres to the whimsical tone. The blood is replaced by red yarn, confetti, and silly string. The movie smartly underplays the lack of consistent logic within the world of the maze, and so weird things can just happen at a moment’s notice, like the main characters turning into puppet versions of themselves made out of paper lunch bags. There’s even a half-finished maze within the maze, which draws derision from the tired and frustrated people just seeking a way out. Some of the weirdness feels too half-formed and self-conscious, but the movie has an Eternal Sunshine quality where each new location provides another enjoyable opportunity for potential discovery.
Where Dave Made a Maze runs into problems is when you realize there isn’t anything beyond that sense of invention. There isn’t a larger thematic core to this movie and the characters remain, at best, background players elevated to starting status. Most of these characters are jokes but they don’t even supply much in the way of jokes. The closet to a substantive theme is simply an arrested development fable where the man-child is struggling to finish a laboring artistic accomplishment, he feels humbled and humiliated, and his strained relationship with his accommodating girlfriend will always come together in the clincher. Dave lashes out that he didn’t feel like an adult at 30, so maybe he retreated to the halcyon days of childhood, or maybe it was a nostalgic retreat. Whatever the case may be, the movie suffers from an inevitable lull once the giddy novelty of its DIY fantasy starts to wear off. There’s one sequence where Dave and Annie have a circular conversation that just keeps going, and I’m sure if the filmmakers weren’t so desperate for material that it would have been trimmed down significantly.
Even at 76 minutes before credits, this is a movie that feels stretched beyond the limit because it’s lacking greater consideration to story. There are jokes that feel like they should be funnier too, like a latecomer to the maze who sets off the traps that Dave warns about earlier. This should be a fun structural payoff, allowing us to see both sides of the rooms. It doesn’t really work out that way, and the bumbling latecomer becomes another relatively unmemorable and undeveloped body on screen taking up space. The documentary crew conveys some mild satire as the crew leader keeps prodding others into saying what he needs for his movie, but even this inclusion feels more like a transparent device to get the characters to talk through plot points. Another misfire is the curious lack of stakes. The movie has a light-hearted charm but then doesn’t ever quite make up its mind on the danger being confronted. Real friends die for real. By the end of the movie, they do not come back even after the maze is kaput. They are really dead. Yet the film plays the stakes at a low simmer and the survivors just sort of shrug and move on. The film gives me little reason to be attached to any of these people, alive or dead.
Whimsy is a fleeting feeling that’s hard to conceive and harder to hold onto. Both movies take whimsical premises that cater to the peculiar but only one delivers something of lasting substance. Brigsby Bear is a charming, heartfelt, and exceedingly sincere movie about an oddball finding his place in the world through the power of the creative process. He is transformed through his love of art and how that serves as the foundation for community. Whereas Dave Made a Maze is a lo-fi curio that I can admire more than enjoy. It’s missing crucial elements that make its journey worth the effort, beside its imaginative and scrappy production design. Both movies are charged by the power of the imagination to transport the ordinary into the extraordinary. Brigsby remembers to use its flights of imagination and whimsy to tell an engaging and ultimately touching story. Dave Made a Maze has cool sets and some infectious silliness. If you see one story of a man-child escaping into a world of nostalgic imagination and inviting friends to tag along, make it Brigsby, a film that uses whimsy to still tell compelling human stories.
Brigsby Bear: A-
Dave Made a Maze: C+
The Only Living Boy in New York may have made me hate New York. I was rolling my eyes at about every moment of this movie, not just because it wads cliché, not just because it confused the cliché with transcendent and relatable commentary, not just because the characters were aggressively loathsome and inauthentic, and not because it appears to be someone’s idea of Graduate Lite (though, yes, these are all contributing factors). It’s because the movie takes the easy way out at every route and wants to be congratulated for its artistic integrity.
Thomas (Callum Turner) is a twenty-something who feels that New York City has lost what made it special. He’s drifting through life, thinking about becoming a writer, and also trying to romance his best friend Mimi (Kiersey Clemons). His mother (Cynthia Nixon) self-medicates via dinner parties. His father (Pierce Brosnan) has a different approach, namely sleeping with another woman, Johanna (Kate Beckinsale). Thomas follows Johanna and makes his presence known to her. He convinces himself he’s falling in love with her and impulsively chases her as a romantic option as well.
I think the movie wants me to be charmed by its male lead, the young protagonist that looks like a lanky Richard Gere. This twerp made me so angry and he pretty much embodied a creepy blend of entitlement. He’s tired of being in the friend zone with Mimi, but he keeps pushing, sneaking unauthorized kisses, and trying to wear down her defenses after she’s told him no. She’s annoyed that her friendship is by itself not good enough for him, and even though they had one “magic night,” that he won’t accept her repeated stances about not wanting to be together romantically. But what’s a woman’s ability to choose matter to Thomas, who we’re constantly told from every other character in this stupid movie, is clever, bright, good, virtuous, and a prized talent in the making. The movie never shows you these things, never provides evidence of his talents or even his virtues, and so it becomes another series of empty gestures. He’s just so captivating that all the women of New York can’t help themselves around him. This wouldn’t feel so tone deaf and backwards if the film did a better job of making Thomas feel like a living, breathing human being rather than some misguided, coming-of-age hipster creep.
The premise here has promise, a wayward son who ends up having an affair with his father’s mistress. That could work and devise plenty of palpable dramatic tension. Except because we never get to know Thomas beyond a superficial level, the affair only feels like another conquest of entitlement. Even a more interesting subtext, punishing his father for putting their family dynamic at risk, is only kept at a distance. What does Thomas learn about himself, his father, Johanna, or the world through his affair? If you cannot come up with a good answer then that means your plot point is lacking substance. Perhaps they just like the danger or the attention of one another, and yes Beckinsale (pick an Underworld movie) is an attractive woman so that’s a plus for a horny young lad. Most frustratingly, nothing seems to be pressed by this affair. It pushes some eventual third act confrontations but Thomas and Johanna’s tryst, for lack of a better term, just kind of lies there. It doesn’t do much, which is strange considering what it involves. It feels like its real purpose is to engineer jealousy from Mimi, which is gross. Johanna is never more than another trophy for the most blithe boy in New York.
The drama is pitched to a level that feels like it dances into self-parody, except it plays everything so unrelentingly serious. The narration begins by calling out life moments pulled from movie watching, but then it presents these very moments without any ounce of satire. We open with a New York dinner party where the attendees lament how the city has lost its soul (“The only soul left is Soul Cycle,” someone says like the worst 1980s stand-up comedian). Oh no, CBGB’s closed down. Oh no, there are Starbucks on multiple corners. Oh no, a city of ten million plus people is now only a commercialized hell, worry the rich elites from their ivory towers and their faulty memories of New York City being more pure when it was older. Not one character feels like an actual human being in this screenplay by Allan Loeb (Collateral Beauty). This is the kind of elitist, out-of-touch, artificial, self-involved characterization of New Yorkers that hacky conservative writers like to cling to when criticizing their big city targets.
The actors do relatively fine work with what they’re given, though special mention to Brosnan who tries his hardest to imbue notes of complexity in a character that, for 90 percent of the movie, is set up as a snide and disapproving patriarch. I don’t want to give up on Turner (Assassin’s Creed) as an actor because the part did him no favors. Mostly I just felt sorry for them. Cynthia Nixon deserves better. The charming Kiersey Clemons (Dope) deserves better. Jeff Bridges is an executive producer, so he deserves what he gets as an alcoholic author/mentor with an out-of-nowhere ending that feels pulled from a soap opera. These characters are powerfully boring, shallow, and unappealing.
At only 88 minutes long, The Only Living Boy in New York still feels punishing in length, protracted, and not worth the overall effort. Even the title makes me irritable. It’s a reference to the Simon & Garfunkel song that you better believe will get played, one more desperate attempt to glom onto the legacy of The Graduate. The title refers to Thomas, our entitled hipster of a lead, but does that mean that he’s the only one who really feels things, man, because the rest of us are just dead to the world, living our lives, and this hip young man just sees through all the nonsense of the day-to-day and, man, if only we could give him the platform he so rightly deserves then we’d all be better off. I wanted the cameraman to abandon the film and run a few corners and join a new set (it’s New York City, so by the law of averages, there has to be another film shoot a few blocks away). The Only Living Boy in New York is insufferable, haughty, pretentious, privileged navel-gazing masquerading as deep thought; it is smug New York hipster twaddle.
Nate’s Grade: D+
There’s something about plays turned into movies that bring out the best in actors. Usually they provide meaty characters with flaws and big personalities, which lend themselves to big performances that touch upon every emotion in an actor’s kit. Fences is based upon August Wilson’s Tony-winning play set in 1950s Pittsburgh. It follows the fractious household under the indomitable influence of Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington, also serving as director). He’s a complex man prone to bold protestations and morally righteous fury, but he’s also deeply imperfect, hypocritical, and consumed with self-doubt over whether or not he has done right by his family. He’s a man trying to still assess his place in the world and what is owed. Troy’s older brother (Mykelti Williamson) has been mentally incapacitated from his war service and Troy has been living off of his brother’s wages. Troy’s oldest son doesn’t feel like he ever had a father, Troy’s youngest son wants to devote a future to sports, which Troy adamantly refuses, still nursing a grudge over his failed potential that was never capitalized in his mind. Then there’s Troy’s wife Rose (Viola Davis) who tries to keep her blended family together though Troy’s actions will test the boundaries of her devotion and affection. As expected, the performances are outstanding, lead by Washington and Davis reprising their Tony-winning roles. When these two sink into roles worthy of their caliber, it’s a pleasure just to sit back and watch the high-class mastery. Washington lights up the screen with the overwhelming power of his performance; you feel like your ears are pinned back by the sheer volcanic strength of his acting. Davis has her moments and she tears your heart out when she lets loose on a life of compromises to sustain her husband. The characters are so multi-layered with such plentiful history and generational conflicts. Every actor gets his or her moment to shine and do an excellent job under Washington’s direction. The movie is little more than a filmed version of the stage play, and the pacing is a bit loquacious for being almost two and a half hours, but Fences rises on the sheer power of its performances with expert actors giving all of their considerable skill to bring these fascinating people to vivid life.
Nate’s Grade: B+
I was expecting to bury Little Boy in an avalanche of negativity once I found out a late plot point that made my jaw drop. This inspirational Christian independent film is set during World War II and features a pint-sized moppet, Pepper (Jakob Salvati), whose only real friend is his father (Michael Rapaport), who is now serving in the fight in the Pacific. He’s told that through the power of belief he can accomplish great things, and well, he really wants his dad to come home. So through the power of belief he causes… the dropping of the atomic bomb (WWII aficionados will recognize the nickname of the bomb). I was waiting for the moment and amping my sense of dread and moral outrage. A funny thing happened on the way to a nuclear bomb detonation, and that is that Little Boy is a fairly agreeable and effective family film that conveys a message with a welcomed degree of ambiguity and complexity and tolerance. This is a Christian-themed film about the power of belief but at no point does it make explicit whether it’s coincidence or the power of Pepper channeling God. Part of Pepper’s list of good deeds given to him by a priest (Tom Wilkinson) is to befriend a Japanese neighbor who returned home from an internment camp. The movie shows how casual these small-town folk indulge in racism and bullying. The Japanese man is also an atheist and I was legitimately astonished that the movie never makes a judgment about this. He’s treated as a complex man with his own system of thinking, and he’s not viewed as lesser or wayward because of his lack of belief in a higher power. Little Boy is no God’s Not Dead. The melodrama is well paced, the acting is solid if a bit heavy on long bouts of weeping, and the movie undercuts what normally would be the inspirational apexes with harsher reality. The bomb is dropped, and Pepper is initially celebrating until he discovers the total horror of Hiroshima. His “wish” may have even backfired with his father getting further punishment in a POW camp. While I still find the development tacky, I have to reluctantly credit the filmmakers for refusing to pander in a style that removes the complexity and ambiguity of real life. It’s still a movie and it still has a rather predictable albeit emotionally earned ending, but Little Boy might just be one of the biggest surprises of this year for me at the movies.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is an elderly man convinced he has won a million dollars and all he needs to do is travel to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim his loot. It’s one of those mass mailings really meant to get people to buy magazine subscriptions, but Woody will not be stopped, sneaking out to walk all the way to Nebraska from his home in Billings, Montana. David (Will Forte) is in a rut himself. He’s recently been dumped, his job is going nowhere, and his father refuses to accept his million dollars isn’t real. There’s a question of how lucid Woody is, and so to placate his old man, David decides to drive his father to pick up his winnings, to humor him before his mind may be gone for good.
Despite the overtly sitcom machinations of the inciting incident, which even the characters dismiss, the film is really a drama about the relationship between a father and son and the culmination of our life choices. Woody and David are not close by any conventional means but over the course of their road trip, David begins to see his father in a different light; the old wounds are not forgotten, but David is learning about who his father is through others. He’s been so mad at his father for so long that it was the only identity he had for the man. Now in his deteriorating mental state and physical fragility, his father has a sense of vulnerability that brings about decidedly mixed emotions. In his fragile state, is he the same man or at least the same man David remembers? Then there are all the family revelations springing out from the situation. With a genuine millionaire in their midst, the family is coming out of the woodwork clamoring for their own pieces for all the unpaid assistance they’ve given Woody over the years. Initially, it makes Woody look like he’s been stuck trying to find his footing his whole life, as we learn about the lingering post-traumatic stress effects from his war service. Was he lazy, undiagnosed PTSD, or, as another character surmises, too ashamed to say no when others asked for help, and so he was taken advantage of in the guise of assistance from unscrupulous friends and family. The question remains who is Woody?
This is one of those observational slice-of-life films, and your enjoyment of it will depend on your threshold for the taciturn types. These are the strong silent types who keep most of their feelings to themselves. There’s a very funny sequence where Woody and his aged brothers have gathered around a TV, and to listen to the dry mostly car-related conversation bounce back and forth like a dead, floating wiffle ball, is a great comic moment but also a nice insight into an older generation and their communication. Given the perspective of the film, it’s hard to deduce whether the plainspoken people are being satirized or whether it’s a loving send-up of a specific culture. With Payne’s involvement, I lean more on the affectionate tweaking rather than a mean-spirited ridiculing of small town folk and their small town ways. There are funny situations, like David and Ross teaming up for some misplaced justice, and there are characters more broadly drawn for laughs, particularly Woody’s wife (June Squibb), but the overall interaction of the characters, their speaking vernacular, and how they viewed themselves, that is what made me laugh the most and appreciate the script. You feel like you’re dropping in on these people’s lives; every character feels like they could be a real person, not a stereotype. And boy does money really bring out the worst in people.
With Woody and his son visiting his old haunts, the movie inevitably becomes a reflection of a man taking stock of his life, regarding the choices he made and did not make. The pit stop in town opens up the character and David learns far more about his father, with old girlfriends, old business partners, and old rivals. What I appreciated further is that Nebraska doesn’t try and soften Woody; he’s not going to be some old curmudgeon who over the course of 90 minutes has his icy heart thaw and comes to realize the errors of his ways. Nope. Our views on the old man may soften when we get a fuller picture of who he is ad the life he’s lead, but the man himself is the same. He’s readily belittled, insulted, looked down upon, even by his own family members, especially his sassy wife. It’s easy for him to retreat into alcohol and wonder what if. As the family picture broadens and becomes more clear, the film approaches simply yet touching revelations about the family and the nature of legacy. There’s a father/son examination, but there’s also the discussion of what to do when your parents become too ill to take care of themselves. It’s not exactly The Savages, but there’s a circling sense of burdensome decision-making that provides an extra level of pathos to the sitcom setup. By the end, Nebraska squeezes out some earned sentiment without losing its edge or sense of identity. There’s a lot more going on then just some send-up of rubes.
People have been raving about Dern (TV’s Big Love, Django Unchained) ever since the film’s Cannes premier, where the man earned top acting honors. The man deserves every positive words penned. He’s simply fantastic. The character vacillates between outward hostility, spacing out, and general Midwestern emotional reserve, and Dern is able to sell you on every emotional beat without breaking character. He’s unrepentant and demands to be taken for who he is, and his matter-of-fact bluntness has a certain charm to it, like when he admits to David that he never had any plans for kids. He just liked to “screw” and their mother was a Catholic (“You do the math”). I even appreciate that Woody would use the term “screw,” which seems more appropriate. As a two-man show, it’s a shame that Forte (TV’s 30 Rock, The LEGO Movie) doesn’t exhibit the dramatic chops to keep up with his onscreen pop. It’s nice to see him attempt something so different but his limitations are too evident; it’s just another gear that’s not present. At no point would I call Forte’s performance bad but he’s just unable to keep up. Squibb (About Schmidt, Meet Joe Black) is a hoot though the character seems to be permanently stuck in “wacky” mode. She’ll crack you up with her unrestrained commentary, but you may wonder if there’s any more to this character than saying outrageous, curt comments.
This was the last Best Picture nominee I’d failed to catch up with, and while it’s entertaining, funny, and unexpectedly touching thanks to terrific acting and a sharp script, but it also might be the weakest Alexander Payne film yet. This is the first film that the Oscar-winning director hasn’t written himself. Bob Nelson’s screenplay may never have even been glanced over by Payne had it not been for the state of its title (Payne’s films general take place in Omaha). It’s got Payne’s stamp, as would any film he directs, but it also feels like it’s missing something ephemeral, not to get too pretentious. This is a quality study of a cracked group of characters that, upon further review, aren’t as cracked as we may think. They’re just flawed people trying to get along as best they can. Even amidst the snide and antagonistic conversations, there’s gentleness here about the value of family that resonates above the din of the shouting. By film’s end, what started as a cockeyed sitcom transforms into a film that has more meaning and emotion, never betraying its guarded sense of self. When I say the weakest Payne film, this is not an insult but merely an observation. Even the weakest Alexander Payne film is going to be so much better than just about everything out there.
Nate’s Grade: A-